- Theatre and AutoBiography: Writing and Performing Lives in Theory and Practice
Theatre and AutoBiography, Writing and Performing Lives in Theory and Practice is an interesting text. It is 'interesting' as opposed to 'fascinating' because editors Grace and Wasserman have chosen to cast a very wide net; the range is enormous but the coverage is sometimes uneven. Divided into four parts, the text can almost be read as two separate books. Part 1 and part 2 – or book 1 – consider theories with contrasting methodologies while the third and fourth part – a possible book 2 one could say – turn to the personal as theatre historians, theatre biographers, and finally playwrights themselves consider the fields of biography and autobiography. Each section has its strengths but again as a result of the range and variety of approaches, some will speak more eloquently than others. It is perhaps inevitable that a review of a book dedicated to autobiography will favour certain sections over others.
Sherrill Grace takes on the daunting task of contextualizing and introducing the book. The genesis of this collection was found in a workshop held at the University of British Columbia in February 2004. Putting a Life on Stage: A Theatre and AutoBiography Exploratory Workshop saw invited playwrights, theatre professionals, publishers, [End Page 420] and academics gather to consider autobiography. 'Part One: Theorizing AutoBiographical Theatre' has Susan Bennett open the discussion with a consideration of the monologues of Spalding Gray, Karen Finlay, and Adrienne Kennedy. Specifically, Bennett persuasively argues that also in the case of these dramatic monologues the personal is political. Likewise Ric Knowles in 'Documemory, Autobiology, and the Utopian Performative in Canadian Autobiographical Solo Performance' turns to specifically Canadian solo performances to consider Jill Dolan's utopian performativity. Richard J. Lane revisits the plays of Samuel Beckett, while Katherine McLeod looks at plays by Linda Griffiths and Wendy Lill, rounding out the opening section. In 'Part Two: AutoBiographical Plays – Stage, Page, or Real Life?' Louis Patrick Leroux, Joanne Tompkins, Anne Northof, Cynthia Zimmerman, and Louise Forsyth provide the mirror image of part 2 as they, in turn, use various theories to consider several plays. Again the personal arises and it is interesting that increasingly in this chapter the focus becomes the personal cost of violence.
Turning to parts 3 and 4 in some ways turns from the general to the particular and in so doing to the particulars of the personal. Maggie Gale effectively resurrects one of the jobs of the theatre historian as she reveals her 'problems' with autobiography. Similarly Paula Sperdakos in 'Untold Stories: [Re]Searching for Canadian Actresses' Lives' shares the discovery that her 'sleuthing' enables her to go on an 'emotional journey' with her women. Both Denis Johnston and Ira Nadel offer fascinating auto/biographies of two very different subjects. The former on Totem Theatre and the latter on David Mamet are equally compelling. This section closes with what are, for this reviewer, the most riveting chapters: 'Behind the Scenes: Irish Theatre, Irish Lives, and the Task of the Biographer' by Ann Saddlemyer, and Grace's 'Sharon Pollock's Doc and the Biographer's Dilemma.' As Saddlemyer writes, 'Biography is an exceeding personal adventure,' and resoundedly these two chapters brings us firmly back to complexities of so-called real stories.
'Part Four: Creating AutoBiography on Stage' turns to the playwright. Editor Jerry Wasserman introduces this section in 'Writing and Performing Lives: Ten Playwrights Speak' and begins by explaining what task he had initially given the writers. His overview notes the similarities and differences that result but also suggests that the heart of this section lies in the interesting relationship between the actor and the writer. What had earlier in the book often been largely surface here becomes heart and blood. Every writer challenges the reader. As it was suggested earlier, Theatre and AutoBiography has a broad focus. Readers may debate its relative strengths but strengths there clearly are.